My colleague Brian asked (some little while ago), “I wondered if you might make some comments on the relationship (assuming there is one) between science and speculative philosophy?” Well, now that the generalized madness that is and was the 2015 International Whitehead Conference is behind me, I finally have time to turn my attention to this and other questions.
There is absolutely a relationship between science and speculative philosophy, and it is worth remembering how that relationship expressed itself in the past: Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton all knew themselves to be engaged IN philosophy when they made their grand, speculative proposals. My answer here, however, will be thoroughly Whiteheadian. Not, however, because I’m a “fan,” but because I believe that Whitehead was substantially correct on the issues he chose to engage, and always interesting, regardless.*
Rather than merely referring everyone to the opening chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality (titled, appropriately enough, “Speculative Philosophy”) or to the detailed expositions on the relations between philosophy in general and science, found in Whitehead’s “triptych” (Enquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), Concept of Nature (1920), The Principle of Relativity (1922)), or his somewhat more popular Science in the Modern World (1925), I’m going to reflect back upon how that relationship has currently been expressed and, frankly, mutilated in contemporary science.
The both literally and pun intended paradigm of model centrism today is Stephen Hawking. Now, Hawking is a great mathematical physicist. Indeed, his work is all but unparalleled in contemporary times – Hawking actually published a major piece of research in the form of a BOOK, an astonishing achievement in an age when anything beyond an article in a journal is TL;DR. But Hawking has felt compelled to demonstrate his mortal failings in the Dunning-Kruger driven ego expressions that are his poplular books. The most recent, and hands down most shameful, is his The Grand Design. (Look it up yourselves; I refuse to link to this twaddle.)
In this pitiful waste of text, Hawking declares, early on and ex cathedra, that “philosophy is dead.” It is clear from the text that follows that his reason for making this declaration is because philosophy refuses to reduce itself to the loving adulation of the ex cathedra declarations of Hawking and his ilk. Hawking resorts to an ad hominem dismissal of all philosophers of science as mere physicist wannabes who couldn’t handle the mathematics. Hawking announces ex fiat that philosophers are all fools because they continue to worry over quantum mechanics – despite the fact that the physicists themselves struggle with this topic, a fact Hawking would know if he troubled to pay attention to the literature in his own discipline. But, evidently, this latter is just too hard.
Instead, Hawking chooses to engage in sloppy, ego-infused and dunning-kruger driven legislative clap-trap about How-The-World-IS. As anyone with 4th grade reading skills, and a 1st year college education, will instantly recognize by reading the Introduction and first chapter of The Grand Design, Hawking is engaged in the worst sort of speculative philosophy imaginable. It is certainly not science, because every claim he makes in those early pages (and throughout the book) is not only empirically vacuous, it is devoid of even the abstract possibility of empirical test. Yet Hawking is so monstrously ideological, he never once troubles to notice, much less comment on, this immediately obvious and irrefutable fact.
Let me repeat and slightly expand on this: Hawking is making empirically vacuous claims, that he imagines to be science but which, being empirically vacuous, are not only not science, they don’t even qualify as marginally adequate philosophy. The philosophy, you’ll recall, that he has declared – without argument or evidence – to be dead.
Hawking is – or, at least, was – a great mathematician. But he has NEVER been a scholar of any caliber. He has no grasp of history, he is incapable of engaging texts at even the most superficial level, and his boundless egotism precludes him from entertaining even the abstract possibility of learning about these topics that he would presume to pontificate on. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is the least laughable of his popular works, because it is merely silly. The reason it is so brief is because there is no real history in it. (Compare, for example, a genuinely scholarly work such as Charles Sherover’s Human Experience of Time. The superficial and ideological presuppositions of Hawking’s work easily display themselves as the dogmatic assertions that they are.)
These “negatives” provide a background in which I can now make a few “positive” statements about the rolls of philosophy in general, and speculative philosophy in particular, to the practice of science:
- Philosophy in general is a critic of bad science. Dewey spoke of philosophy as being a “critique of critiques.” So when the gate-keepers of supposed science start spewing empirically vacuous twaddle (such as Hawking has now made a second career of doing), (good) philosophy steps in to say what the dependent monks of physics, and the fawning idolaters of the media, refuse to say: “You are spewing empirically vacuous twaddle. This is worse than bad science (since it isn’t science at all.) This is bad philosophy.”
- Speculative philosophy, however, takes a special and additional step. Speculative philosophy – good speculative philosophy – proposes ideas that can be refined into concepts, which in turn can be polished into hypotheses, and which, with a lot of work and serious testing, might ultimately be raised to the status of theories. I’ve spent some exhausting days not only participating in such a process, but offering a couple of my own suggestions on how such speculative developments might (within specific contexts) proceed.
This is why I like Whitehead: he was an especially careful critic, and a stunningly good speculator.
Science and scientists get to speculate also, of course. But such speculations not only do not, they cannot possibly qualify as science once they’ve abandoned empirical test. People like Hawking, Krauss, Greene, and Carrol, variously disdain the requirements of such tests, because such tests interfere with the promiscuous fabrication of models which these gate-keepers of physics believe should be the only business of science. Pointing out such abandonment is no small part of the roll that general philosophy play with regard to the scientific enterprise. Very well. But, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? “Who watches the watchers themselves?”
With respect to science, that would be philosophy. (With respect to philosophy, well, (1) no one is listening to us in the first place, and (2) we, and everyone else who’s never read a book, is watching us pretty closely.)